Visit with me here to commiserate and to celebrate the writing life. Or you can find me over at Heckled by Parrots where life is for the birds… and the dog.

No Guarantee How This is Going to End

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I’m imagining that I’m going to spin you an enthralling story. It’s going to start with a hook that will convince you keep reading and then transition to a tale that reminds you of something that has happened to you as well.

I’m imagining I’ll say something that will make you laugh. Then I’ll craft this one perfect sentence that will make you pause, think, and rethink something important to you. And after all this brilliant craftwork, I’ll wrap this piece up with a satisfying and profound ending that you will find yourself reading three times. Then sighing with pleasure, you will forward the letter to a friend.

I tell myself little fairy tales like this every time I start a journey. It might be a book, a new hawk, or a romance, but I’m always imagining the ending — the gorgeous glorious ending where all the pitfalls and perils have been obliterated. And as they fade away, credits role across a scene depicting permanent perfection.

Then I shove the daydreams out of my mind. The perfect ending is the enemy. There is no guarantee how this is going to end. It might be disappointing. It might even end in disaster. The only thing you can count on is the journey.

Over the last 22 years, if anything has taught me this, it’s falconry. You have to love the ride. When I pulled Elsa from the nest last June, raised her, and then much as her parents would have done, set her free to explore the world that was born to her, I knew not to count on the ending. Every day she adventured through my neighborhood in the much wilder world at tree level, I knew she was at risk. Everything wild is at risk. Science says that at least 80% of young raptors don’t survive their first foray into the tree line.

Instead, I focused on the process. Every day was gift. Every survived terror was a triumph. I focused on our extensive daily routine, on building a relationship, on shaping behaviors, and on all the utterly foreign language I was learning. I became fluent in Cooper’s hawk and grateful for the joy of foreign love.

But, falconry is cruel mistress and eventually, I did slip. When we were solid partners, ensconced in our comfortable Klingon marriage, I started imagining the future and forgetting the moment. I started thinking the only thing important was the future. Next year was going to be so much better. When our credits rolled it was going to be epic.

And that was when Elsa was killed.

In my experience, there is nothing in my life that cannot be compared to falconry. There is nothing in my life that couldn’t be exponentially better if I treated it with the focus, resolve, and mindfulness that I normally give to falconry. Losing Elsa was every book I’ve written that ever failed me at the end. Losing Elsa was every relationship where I didn’t focus on the joy of the moment and crashed at the end. I had started to dismiss the journey for the ending and now I’m left with small regrets.

However, I also had, in all honesty, one of the most amazing falconry seasons I’ve ever had. I can’t wait for June, to fly Elsa’s sister from another clutch, to do this again, even if the ending tears my heart out. Because the journey is all that you ever get to hold on to. The ending is just a new beginning.

xxR

A Birthday Bonus

GambelsQuailHeaderI’m forty-five today and I haven’t the faintest idea how that happened. I still get excited when I’m carded and it turns out that I AM actually old enough to buy a bottle of tequila. I still look about furtively, assuring myself that no parents, grandparents, or REAL adults are going to notice that I’m eating chocolate cake and pizza for breakfast. And I still believe that anything is possible, even the things that have alluded me for the last 27 years I’ve been an adult.
There are aspects of turning forty-five that aren’t easy. It’s not the smile lines or the crow’s feet that bother me. I earned those. It’s not that I can no longer climb a chain link fence or stay up all night then work in the morning. I never really wanted to do either of those things. What’s hard is having no choice but to admit, that I must, absolutely MUST, make the most of this second half of my life. Who knew? It turns out that we are blessed enough to continue on the journey, we all become middle-aged at some point.

And there is so much still to come. I now know that whatever it is I THINK I know, isn’t quite right. There is no shortage of things to learn and re-think. There is no shortage of reasons to try again, try harder, and try to do differently. There is no too late, until it’s over. And it ain’t over yet, baby!
So thank you for reading these letters and giving me a reason to write them. Writing these letters inspires me to write more, fly more, and live more. And interacting with all of you makes me feel like I have a massive extended family– a whole lot of people who are worth sharing my heart and heartbreaks with weekly. That is not something I would have imagined back in the days when I couldn’t imagine being 45.

So in honor of one more trip around the sun and a falconry season full of unfiltered adventure, I want to share this list of the things that falconry has taught me from my eBook RISE. May we all have a year filled with these simple pleasures.

The Life Lessons of Falconry
1.Life is simple, as simple as a glorious sunrise and a good hunt.
2.Honesty is the foundation of every great relationship.
3.Trust is delicate and requires constant care.
4.The living creatures we love the most do not “belong” to us.
5.The best meals are fought for and toasted.
6.Grace, style and precision are a combination often dismissed as luck. If you work hard, you will always be “lucky.”
7.Magic comes in moments of desperation. So don’t give up.
8.Anything is possible. So keep your eyes open.
9.Sometimes life requires having a little faith in something that is too high above you to see.
10.The things you discover while looking into the skies are worth the occasional stumbling. So keep looking up.

(And if you really want a treat, listen to Xe Sands, who is an amazing narrator, read these and a very short story about the amazing heart of a falconry dog.)

And if you haven’t read the essays and stories in RISE, it’s available on Amazon for free here.
Happy Ground Hog’s Day!

xxR

Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe in the bar on the left!

 

On Endings and Things Unfinished

cattleegretHeaderEverything ends. I know this and yet, sometimes it’s so hard to walk away from things I know are over but haven’t given me a satisfactory ending.

This is life. I cling to things lost. I hope to fix the unfixable.  I try to explain the unexplainable to myself.  I want an ending that makes sense.

I hear my friends do the same and I feel their pain. Everyone deserves a finite and understandable end so that we can grieve and move on.

This sounds like a discussion about relationships. And it kind of is, but mostly what I want to talk about is bad relationships with art.

I feel the pain of unresolved endings most especially for my artist friends and their unfinished projects. I hear so often… “I have this other novel, painting, quilt, carving, this project I can’t wait to work on, but I have this THING I’M DOING THAT I HAVE TO FINISH first.”

Why is it that we feel beholden to everything we start as an artist just because we were in love at the beginning? Look, it’s no different than any relationship. No one benefits from a partner staying after it’s over.

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, she talks about ideas as if they were living beings of energy floating about the universe, bumping against us, and looking for the right partner. I love the thought of this. It’s as if art is actually the prototype for online dating.

Imagine this: You are looking for THE ONE. And you find an online profile that intrigues you. The two of you have this spark, this one thing in common. You banter in the ether and then you try to make something work in real life. It looks extraordinary for a while. It looks like this is your future and everything you’ve ever wanted.

Then it doesn’t.

Because, sometimes that initial spark isn’t enough.

Maybe it’s not working. Maybe the idea fell out of love with you and checked out. Maybe the idea is a fantastic one, but not really in your wheelhouse. It’s possible that someone else could rock that idea’s world and that’s what this idea deserves. Maybe once you had the idea solidly in your grasp you stopped being interested in it. You want to love it. You want it to work. But for whatever reason, it isn’t working anymore.

It’s over, man. Let it go. Pack your bags. Leave.

I think there is no place for this kind of love affair in art. You only have to look in my drawer of abandoned manuscripts to affirm my belief that art has finite endings. I have 14 published books, but also have 6 manuscripts from the last 20 years which have been abandoned half- and even three-quarters of the way through.

Every project is a love affair, you just have to find the strength to love it as best you can while it’s working and have the honesty to admit when it’s over.

Over is okay. It isn’t a waste. You were lucky to love while you loved. You learned. You lived. And whatever is next will benefit from what you accomplished, even if it was never finished. Because seriously…  I’m certain my family takes great comfort in the fact that I haven’t married most of the guys I’ve dated.

Life is too short to write novels you don’t love, to keep adjusting paintings that won’t match your imaginings, or to keep trying to love anything that doesn’t love you back.

What are working on now? What should you be working on? Is the love mutual? That’s all I’m asking you, and for that matter, myself.

xxR

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Our Symphony of Grief

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I grew up in Southern California with a swimming pool in my backyard and an hour from the beach. When I was a kid, I was certain that everything you needed to learn about the world could be taken from the water.

So as a teenager and a woman in my early twenties, I took every opportunity I could to make it to the beach. I had body-surfed the Pacific for years and the ultimate surfing was at The Wedge. Twenty years ago, this place was word-of-mouth among surfers. Today, according to the Internet, it’s well known. There is a rock jetty at The Wedge that makes for singular waves–but they are also notoriously unpredictable.

Most days when I arrived at The Wedge, I watched an ambulance drive away a surfer. As I tugged on my winter wetsuit, I would shake my head. That was never going to be me, but I could see what had happened to “them”. Not me. Them. The best and most thrilling waves were in this place and I was a strong and fearless swimmer.

I have a crystalline memory of the day The Wedge schooled me about life. The waves were maybe six feet and predictably formed. I slipped into the curls, convinced that I was one with the heart’s blood of the world.

Then the waves shifted.

With no warning, I was swimming into a twelve-foot wave, torn between diving or trying to ride it. I went with it and found myself tossed on the crest, staring below. There was nothing but a shallow sweep of water across sand and I was about to meet it.

I hit the floor and didn’t know how to swim up. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know sky from salt water. And when the wave caught up with me, I rolled, sand abrading my cheeks and I begged to get to a place where I could breathe. Spun and disoriented, I imagined my goodbyes and then somehow fought my way accidentally to the surface.

I stumbled through the surf, back to my towel, and then stared unbelieving at the ocean. I stripped off my winter wetsuit next to my Pontiac Sunbird, drove away, and never body-surfed again.

The Wedge had betrayed me.

But looking back now I know that’s not quite right. The Wedge was inevitable. She is the ocean. The Wedge taught me everything I needed to know about grief.

I lost Elsa, my Cooper’s hawk on Wednesday. She was killed after eight months of a hard won relationship. I know that falconry is cruel, because nature is cruel. If you choose to be a falconer, you choose to eschew the laws of civilized life. I chose to be at the whim of destruction. I chose to have to face my grief.

But none of us want to face our grief. It is the ocean of life.

At first I did what we all do. I attended to the busy work of death. I found a favorite t-shirt and wrapped her small body carefully inside. I removed empty perches and bath pans and crates, not wanting to face a blank expanse in unexpected moments. I made phone calls and texted and kept talking so I could convince everyone else that I was just fine.

I pretended like there wasn’t a 12-foot wave coming, because one wants to grieve. But when the phone calls were over and there was nothing left to do, I folded into myself and couldn’t come uncurled.

Elsa was a blow, but that wasn’t why I didn’t want to face my grief. I’ve come to learn that grief is cumulative. Our life’s losses are a symphony that we conduct, every performance more rich and beautiful when we have to pick up the baton.

I own this requiem. It is the grandparents who raised me. It is my first dog. It’s my dear friend Andy. It is Morris, Needle, Bentley, Elsa, friends who have moved and broken relationships. Every little loss is in the swell of 100 instruments.

Grief is the thing that we fear the most. We want so badly to bury our grief with our dead, but our losses are as loud as the life in our blood. Our dead never stop talking. You can choose to ignore their voices, but then you have to shut out the living as well.

And if you ask me, this is far too much to lose. My symphony is not an easy listen, but god damn it’s beautiful.

I promised myself when I started these letters that I would be vulnerable and honest about failure. I told myself that I would be honest about when I got knocked down. I’m knocked down. Not because of a hawk, but because she was mine, a metaphor and a story that is over now.  But I’m going to get back up because all stories end.

My loss is small compared to some, if not most. But we all grieve the same and in this, our losses make us equal.

And how can we stand strong for those we love if we cannot believe that what we feel is what others feel? We are all of us travelling on the waves of our cumulative grief.

So I guess what I want to say is that even if I haven’t heard it, even if you don’t want to share, your symphony is a masterpiece. Loss is for the living and it is born on unpredictable waves. We are all of us surfing The Wedge. The ocean is cruel, but it’s beautiful music. Embrace the waves.

xxR

The Art of Sitting in Cactus

ThrasherHeaderI fell in love with thrashers and cactus wrens while I was hunting with my hawks in Kingman, Arizona last week. They are beautiful birds, but that wasn’t why I fell in love. I was smitten by the enviable way they nestled into the cholla, navigating the pervasive thorns and making what I thought of as inevitable pain look like a cozy home. Desert birds are bad ass.

Living as an artist is like being a desert bird in a cholla, I think. It looks dangerous from the outside, but it’s all about experience and what you know. Everyone is afraid to embrace being an artist or of being an entrepreneur because the cholla looks so daunting. Really though, life is nothing but cactus. You just have to figure out how to manage it.

I’m not saying that being an artist for a living is easy.

The year has barely started and it’s already being irascible. This happens in an artist’s life. It’s what practical people with steady jobs and inflexible responsibilities most fear. The bonus I was promised from a part time writing job didn’t happen, leaving me scrabbling for how to pay the mortgage (which quite frankly is already in a very precarious position). The slew of press releases I killed myself to write over the holidays for a client at the last minute were received with silence and then an admonition that they had done major rewrites in house. The work calendar looks bleak and I would love to buy a cord of wood, get my brakes done, and take the dogs to the vet for their checkups and overdue shots. I’m just going to have to push this all aside and wait for a better week.

I’m not telling you this for sympathy. I’m telling you this, because it is the sort of thing artists never speak about. We don’t talk about money, because we are so very lucky to manage to live on our art. Still, my life is nothing short of navigating cholla.

So here’s the thing. I do live on my art. I AM in an admirable place.  I make it work. Every month I find a way and every month things work out somehow. I have freelanced full time for four years now. I have food, a house that is mine, time to fly my hawks, space to write what I want, flexibility, and a vast expanse of possibilities for what is next.

Here’s what I don’t have. I don’t have security. I could be financially or emotionally devastated at the world’s whim. I don’t have all the things I want. I can’t buy everything that would be helpful to have when I want it. I have to find workarounds for life’s challenges. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
And you know what? Even if you happen to have a secure corporate job, are a trust fund baby, have a steady retirement fund, or have just been fastidious about your finances and your family’s future – I’m pretty sure that you are in the same boat.

So what’s stopping you from living the life you want?

I’ll tell you what’s stopping you. It’s called resistance and it’s a very real and very tenacious enemy. Resistance is the spines on the cholla.

How do I know? I face resistance every single morning. Every day I get up and don’t want to face a blank page, don’t want to face another empty-handed falconry hunt, and don’t want to have my writing rejected by agents and editors yet one more time. I want to stay in bed where it’s warm and binge watch bad sci-fi on Netflix and when five o’clock rolls around and the day seems wasted, I want to ease my anxiety with tequila and a long phone call with a friend.

Some days, this is exactly what I do. Most days though, I do what makes this life possible. I do my work.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art says, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wanna be writers don’t and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is resistance.”

If you haven’t read The War of Art … well, you must. It will help you face whatever it is that really want to do and haven’t. It’s simple, really. You tell resistance to go fuck itself as often as you can and do the work. Pressfield will kick your ass and remind you to find the discipline to do the best you can or shut the hell up and stay in your corporate cubicle.

I am not opposed to cubicles. I yearn for one sometimes.  I’m just assuming that you are reading this because a cubicle isn’t what you want. And if it’s not what you want, I’m telling you right now, you don’t have to trust in leaps of faith and luck of the draw. You only have to believe you can do the work and then make yourself do it.

I’ve published 14 books. I’m not sure how. Most days the hardest thing I do is just to start typing. And some days I don’t even manage to start. But I always try again.  Despite anxiety and heartbreak and unexpected personal tragedies, I try again. And I bet that YOU are already doing that too. So what’s stopping you from the rest of it?

So whatever your resistance: lack of faith, an admirable sense of responsibility, sex, drugs, rock and roll, or falconry, it’s no excuse not to try. We’re all doing the best we can and just showing up is what turns the world. Showing up and doing just a little adds up to a lot in the end.

For the record, after three hard days of days of hawking, my red-tailed hawk Dread caught a rabbit in a stand of cholla the last day I was in Kingman. In my haste and inexperience, I ended up with a rear full of the beastly bits of that evil plant. Fortunately, I had girlfriends willing to pull them out of the embarrassing places I couldn’t see. And you have friends like that too.

So do your work, Dear Readers. Do your work.

Will I go back to Kingman to hunt again? Hell yes. Screw you resistance. I now know what the cactus wrens and thrashers know. You just have to understand how to navigate the cholla — and if you misjudge your path, the spines don’t hurt that bad – but it’s best not to sit in it.

xxR

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An Unresolved Year

BWI#6HeaderIt’s the week of the New Year New You!  We get to start over like we’re brand new!

Hooray!!

Except that I’m starting to strongly suspect that becoming brand new is a lie. In fact, I think it is quite possibly a pervasive delusion brought to us courtesy of infomercials and pharmaceutical ads. Unless it’s true that you can just pop a few fat burning pills, turn over some real estate with the $200 in your savings and then you end up holding hands with your soulmate while lounging luxuriously in adjacent bathtubs.

Yeah, well, probably not.

Mainly, I believe there are no fresh starts because I’ve yet find myself in a place in life that truly equates to a clean slate. I don’t think it’s impossible, though. I suppose if you wake up with amnesia and no one will claim you, then you do in fact, get a fresh start. Poof! All your mistakes are gone. Maybe you’ll forget you can’t resist cupcakes, that you procrastinate, and that you get your feelings hurt over silly things. And on some days I really do think that sounds like absolute bliss.

Then just before I decide who I might talk into smacking me on the head with a shovel to achieve this bliss, I remember the whole picture of what I would lose. In between all those imperfections were the moments that actually made me believe in the magic and the point of this life.

I would lose the bobcat that strolled by me in the chaparral, dismissing me with a quick flick of his ears as if I belonged.

I would forget turning to see my hawk gliding to my glove suspended across a low-hung full moon.

I’d be short a night’s worth of laughter around a campfire and early hour whispering about possibilities and hopes in a tiny tent.

I would forever lose an eerie midnight drive across the Mojave, the darkness on a two-lane desert highway barely penetrated by headlights and the sky punctuated by the ghostly defection of stray stars.

If I want to keep all that, then I have to admit that I don’t get to start clean. I’m going to have to take 2015 with me. I can’t pretend like we never had a torrid affair and scrub it from my life.

I’m starting to think that I’ve been doing it wrong, this whole New Year’s resolution thing. I’m wondering why I’m expected to treat every year as if it betrayed me and try to start over. And even if 2015 did betray me, why should I end my relationship with it so callously?

It tried to be a good year. Hell, 2015 did the best it could with what it had to work with. Sometimes it crafted miraculous moments out of what seemed like insurmountable odds. Occasionally it let me down so spectacularly that I wondered if it actually hated me. Most of the time though, it was just there, innocuous and ticking along with me. Damn. Now that I think about it, 2015 actually sounds downright human.

So why do I need to miraculously become a better person at midnight so that 2016 will love me more?

I DO want to be a better person and I want 2016 to be better than its predecessor. But I believe that kind of “better” is a million mile march down a path that constantly forks. I could be skinny, more focused, and just generally a nicer person, but that isn’t going to happen on a brick road leading straight to Oz and paved with golden New Year’s resolutions. It’s going to happen on that tricksy road full of choices and I don’t think I should be asking anything more of myself than to pause and try to choose the fork that doesn’t tempt me with cupcakes. And then when I chose it anyway, I just need to get back on the right path and try again.

So thank you, 2015. I loved you in my way. There is no reason to despise you so I can pretend like this is a clean slate and you never existed. You be exactly what you were and I’ll try to remember you as fondly as can. And I will be exactly who I was in 2015, that girl who keeps trying, only… just maybe with a few less cupcakes.

xxR

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Filling the Big Empty

BWI#5HeaderLast year, on December 21st, I stood in my backyard staring at my empty weathering yard.
A weathering yard, for those not familiar with falconry is a safe and enclosed area where you put your hawk or falcon during the day. They sun, bathe, relax, and think whatever strange thoughts flit through a raptor’s mind. And at my house, you can stand at the kitchen window, stare into the yard at the contented hawks and try to imagine how to daydream like a creature with wings. It is my favorite reverie.

Except that my yard had been empty for a good long while, long enough that my young Brittany had decide to dig a detonated mine field’s worth of holes in it. The yard was a disaster.

In the spring, my favorite hunting partner of ten years, a peregrine named Anakin had been accidentally released while he was on loan to a breeding project. He was so fat that he had no desire to seek out humans for food. He had no telemetry on and therefore there was no way to track him. He had no reason to do anything but convert to being a wild raptor. I’m sure he is still out there now, living the second half of his life feral and fierce. It’s a happy thought. But I wished I could see it. I missed him. I still do.

The haunted disaster of a weathering yard was only half of my emptiness though. I was still trying to get back on my feet from a serious six month relationship that had ended late summer. It was over when another woman was kind enough to inform me that I was actually the second girlfriend (well, maybe even a third of fourth girlfriend). My boyfriend and I had been planning on moving in together. I had been in love with his two boys. I had been friends with his ex-wife. And none of it had been real.

(I know. I know. Me and relationships. You’re just going to have to give me points for persistently continuing to play the lottery. I might win someday, but not if I don’t play. It’s only a dollar a ticket, after all…)

This relationship had been over for months, but the ex wouldn’t stop texting me and trying to get me back. And the other girlfriend wouldn’t stop texting to make sure I knew he wanted her back too. So I kept remembering what I had lost. I kept looking at my empty yard.

I had been trying to fill myself back up for four months with zero luck. I got work done when I could and then spent the rest of my time curled up on the couch trying not to hurt. It all seemed pointless. Birds fly away. People lie. Where do you even start again?

Looking at the yard that morning, I still didn’t know, but the sun felt good on my back and so I rifled through the garage and my found my shovel. I thought I would try to fill just one of the dog-dug holes. Just one hole and then I could go back inside and curl up on the couch again.

The first hole wasn’t hard to fill. So I filled another. Then another. And two hours later, there were no holes left. I had smoothed out the yard and it was ready to be seeded for grass.

So I went to Home Depot and got Bermuda grass seed. Since I was there already, I picked up some hardware cloth and rebar. And since I had done that, I ran into Walmart and bought a spool of monofilament fishing line. Then when the seed was spread across the yard, I sat upright on the couch and started to make a trap for a hawk.

I read how to make a bal chatri trap when I was just a kid, but I had never made one before. It’s an old falconry standard for catching first-year hawks, which are young enough to be amenable about forging a relationship with people. However, a BC is not something you can just buy at the store. Mostly, you have to borrow one from a friend or make your own.

A BC is constructed from hardware cloth with an inner chamber to safely tuck the bait, usually some wary rodent, and then an outer layer that is covered with slip knots made of monofilament. It is weighted so that a hawk cannot carry it away and balanced so that you can toss it from a car window. If you make it right it, it works like this: hawk see mouse, hawk tries to grab mouse, which turns out to be inaccessible, hawk catches feet in the slip knots, falconer has new hawk.

There is no standard design. There is no right way to build one. You just have to commit and make your own trap.

Hardware cloth is an unforgiving medium. It takes determination to bend it into shape. It requires forethought to imagine its final shape and a willingness to adjust your expectations and then rethink your plan when it refuses to shape into your imaginings. And no matter how close you nip the edges of your creation with wire cutters, what remains will find a way to tear at your skin. You will bleed.

When you get past the challenge of metal, then next you meet nylon. The monofilament is hard on your fingers. Your skin dries and cracks while you carefully tie dozens of slip knots. Your fingers ache and burn. It is all rather tedious and punishing work.

In the end though, making a trap to catch a hawk is a long meditation on hope. It is an exercise in desire.

So in the last hour of the shortest day of the year, I found myself exhausted and a bit bloodied, but staring at an unexpected day’s long effort that left me with only one last step, to find a hawk, win its trust and fill the yard again.

Now a year later there are two hawks in the yard, dozens of grand adventures, hundreds of stories, and twelve very very full months. I’m never curled on the couch unless I’m exhausted from running beneath the shadow of a hawk and across the chaparral. I’m full up.

My mom loves the story and reminds me of it often when I forget that it’s the first little step that get us to the most amazing things. That’s all we really have to do. You don’t need a direction or a plan to fix your world. You just need to pick up the shovel and start.

When I’m frustrated or feeling broken, she says to me with annoyingly appropriate frequency, “Okay, but all you really gotta do is go fill ONE hole.”

xxR

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Holidays, Aliens & Cookies

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There are things I love about December.

I love the smell of cinnamon and pine.

I love the haphazard visual cacophony of other people’s badly hung Christmas lights.

I love it when the air turns crisp and tense, allowing my falconry birds to cut through the December sky hard and full of heart. I love snuggling beneath a mound of blankets and a couple of dogs in the drafty chill of a 1925 house. I adore the sound of bells. And Christmas cookies. I really LOVE Christmas cookies. All kinds of Christmas cookies. Pretty much ALL the Christmas cookies.

I hate the holidays though. They have never met my expectations and I’ve never met theirs. The warm gestures, perfection of the human spirit, and magical mysteries of the season have never arrived perfectly timed to the season and at my doorstep – not on accident or by my design. My family celebrates Christmas and I can’t remember a single one in 40 years that wasn’t a disappointment, if not a disaster. (In fairness, I don’t remember the first four. They might have been perfect, but I doubt it.)

Even though I continually tell myself that I’m not expecting anything special, I somehow get let down. Some years it’s a family fight over dinner or just an accidental unkind word in my direction. It’s a dissatisfied look at what I thought was the perfect gift. It’s the silence of my cell phone when I’m hoping for someone I miss deeply to reach out and think of me. It’s that moment when the falcon misses the duck I was hoping to bring home for dinner, because, well Christmas. Come on, falconry gods! It’s not like I asked for a pony!!

I think most of us aren’t really expecting that much, but I’m willing to bet that almost all of us are quietly discontent, if not miserable about the whole ordeal. There is always something missing during the holidays – a person, a promise, or one of those annoying fantasies that every ounce of media insists will soon be ours. ‘Tis the season. You only have to believe!

I think we all have stealth expectations.

Brené Brown in her book Rising Strong describes stealth expectations as those things we expect from ourselves or others, but don’t ever honestly tally. We expect them, but never actually give a thought to whether or not they are possible. And without a reality check on our expectations we are likely to be hurt or even resentful. Christmas is the season of stealth expectations.

In fairness, Christmas isn’t the only event I learned to face with a sense of dread when I was younger. I always felt the same way about my birthdays. No matter how much I hoped, hinted, and wistfully opened the door on my darkened home, no one ever yelled “SURPRISE!”  Someone always forgot to call. Boyfriends oddly seemed to manage a breakup right before the next birthday. By the time I was 24 I wanted to burn my birth certificate and ban any reference to it. Instead, I decided to take back the day and make it my own.

When I was 24, I started a ritual that I’ve held vigilantly to this day. I start fasting at sundown the night before my birthday. (So, you’re welcome to forget my birthday cake. I’m not eating it anyway.) Then when the sun sets, I find a quiet private place, light a candle, sip from a goblet of milk, and list all of the year’s most wonderful moments, the ones I want to take with me into my next year. When I’m done, I blow out the candle, leave all the year’s disappointments in the year that made them, and then I go pig out on pretty much everything good I can think of to eat or that happens to fall on my plate. Sometimes I feast with others. Sometimes alone. It doesn’t make a difference. The only thing that matters when you are that hungry is that you feast. So I haven’t had a disappointing birthday in 20 years. I made it my own. I know exactly what the expectations are. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…

I don’t know why I’ve never done something like this for Christmas, which is an inherently more difficult season. I mean, they don’t bombard me with advertisements for my birthday. I don’t have to feel guilty that I barely made my mortgage and for the fourth year in a row no one is getting presents. I don’t spend a lot of time trying not to think about who will never again be sitting at the family table. The whole world isn’t pressuring me to smile, be cheery, and grateful. And blessedly, there are no mythical beings passing judgement and deciding whether or not to bring birthday magic.

I don’t believe in the holiday season, but I’ve seen the commercials, the magazine ads, and the billboards. So, I feel the same way I feel about aliens and ghosts. I don’t believe, but I really really want to believe. You see, apparently I’m going to get a boyfriend, quite possibly an engagement ring, a festive family, no new life disasters (not during the holidays!), a big unexpected gift that makes me feel loved (probably a new car—that seems standard), a flood of love from strangers, at least five new reasons to be joyous and hopeful, and maybe even a Clydesdale.

Except that I’m not. In fact, where would I even PUT a Clydesdale? And why would I want my wonderfully imperfect family and friends to suddenly be absolutely picture-perfect examples of humanity. I’d be wondering if it was Christmas —or an intervention. (Or perhaps if they’re actually those aliens I want to believe in, but those aren’t the sort of aliens I’m hoping for.) And I’m pretty sure that those Hallmark-movie Christmas boyfriends who ask you to marry them in three days’ time, actually end up being the serial killers on next year’s Lifetime movies.

So this year, I’m taking back Christmas and I’ve been carefully considering my expectations.

Here’s what I’m expecting… cinnamon, pine, other people’s badly hung Christmas lights, falconry birds against a winter sky, cold nights with warm snuggly dogs, the bright jingle of copper bells, and cookies, maybe even ALL the cookies  –even if I have to make them myself.

May your holiday expectations be realistic, merry, and bright!

xxR
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But YOU Were the One in the Ring

BWI#3

Two months ago a relationship ended that absolutely broke my heart. Mostly no one knows about this.

I loved this man. He’s a good a person. I believe he truly cared about me.  We had three months of intense phone conversations that lasted for hours. We had private jokes. We had shared dreams. It was long distance, but he came out twice and spent the better part of a week or more with me both times. We cooked. We flew hawks. We schemed. He quickly became my best friend. Then he had a family tragedy.

A few months ago he drove away from my house to deal with this family tragedy after an incredibly awesome week together that included some big plans for the future. When he left he promised he would be back and that everything was going to be okay.

And then he stopped communicating with me.  He ghosted. I imagine he was doing the best he could with his horrible situation, but after being mostly incommunicado for weeks, it was obvious that what we had was over.

He broke my heart in a way I didn’t know it could be broken.

He broke my heart with silence.

This brought me to my knees, but I kept flying hawks and doing my work when I could manage, and just tried to be present with the heartbreak. Then one afternoon, while I was at lunch with “the girls” they asked me about my love life. So I gave them the cliff notes on the breakup.

One of my single friends looked up at me from her salad and asked with awe, “How are you even getting out of bed?”

I said, “If I was in bed right now, I wouldn’t be enjoying this insanely delicious salmon and brie sandwich. I wouldn’t be laughing with you. I’m just trying to be present.”

And I felt like shit for saying this.

A few days ago I finished Brené Brown’s amazing new book, Rising Strong. At the heart of this book is a clarion call for failure stories. Not just for the thrill of the train wreck or the inspiring bit where we rise up and conquer, but for the part of the story we gloss over, the part where we’re on the mat and watching the ref count us out.

**

When I was 23, I was a kickboxer. I don’t mean I went to aerobics classes. (Which is honestly probably about all I could manage to do these days.) What I mean is that I trained several hours a day for five days a week, had an amateur license, and fought in real matches.

I trained hard. I ate tuna most meals because I had to lose 5 pounds to get into a better weight class. I dehydrated myself before weigh-ins. I once went a few rounds with Tommy “The Hit Man” Hearns’ sparring partner in training.  (He totally schooled me, but that’s another story.) I was very serious about it all. Unfortunately, being serious didn’t make me a particularly talented fighter.

I’ve been thinking about kickboxing a lot lately because I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to fail and how to get back up. In kickboxing getting back up isn’t just a metaphor. It’s something you physically do or do not. There are no points for “try” when you’re on the mat. (Hat Tip to Yoda)

And it’s not just you who hits the mat sometimes. You watch friends, foes, and training partners get knocked down or out. You watch how some people get back up humble and determined, while others get up with a fierce anger that eventually burns them up and how some people simply quit. You watch people manage their fall in a dozen different ways. You have a front row seat to the mysteries of getting back up.

I have a vivid memory of the first time I fell, at my first real match at a casino in Los Angeles. The place was packed with people and my trainer kept suspiciously eying my pallid face and shaking hands. I’ve always had stage fright, but going five rounds in front of a crowd of screaming people? Holy Bread and Circuses. What was I thinking?!

In the end I was simply thinking too much. The girl I fought was much better than me and I couldn’t get out of my head and into the fight. In the corner of the ring, my trainer Lorenzo rinsed the blood out of my mouthpiece and said, “Mija, get your hands up and get in this fight. Don’t make me throw in the towel, not when I know you can do this.”

And I could do it. I stayed in the fight, but I certainly didn’t win. I was relieved when it was over though and more relieved that no one had to throw in the towel. I had lost, but it could have been worse. I consoled myself with the thought that I had done the best I could. Thank God I hadn’t hit the mat.
After the fight, my boyfriend, who also trained with me, found me in the green room. I smiled openly at him expecting encouragement, but he shook his head.

He said, “That was embarrassing. You can fight so much better than that. I’m so disappointed in you.” And then it was if I WAS on the mat with the ref standing over me. This wasn’t the fight I had prepared for, but it didn’t make a difference, I had failed. All of the bruises and blisters, all the watching my boyfriend eat guacamole and chips while I stabbed at a can of tuna, all of that determination had gotten me nowhere but straight to failure and disappointment.

What the hell was the point of anything anyway? Why did I even try?

Our best friend Dave found me later. I was out of my ring clothes and now swaddled in sweats, but with my hands still wrapped from the fight, and quietly crying in a corner. He consoled me, saying that hey, it was your first real fight in front of a big audience.

And I told him what my boyfriend had said. Dave’s face twisted into a look of distain and dismissal that even after twenty years I’ve never seen anyone do so effectively.

“Yeah. But YOU were the one who actually got up in the ring. Fuck him.”

This was my best first lesson about failure and getting back up. I was never a great kickboxer, but I came to understand that failure was inevitable. That anyone who retires undefeated has most definitely quit too soon. That what matters is that you were in the ring. (Hat Tip to Teddy Roosevelt and Brené Brown)

All the same, I’ve never quite mastered the art of getting back up. This, my friends, is a lifetime affair. We should all be talking about the view from the mat.

 

At lunch with my girlfriends, talking about my breakup, I sounded like a champion.

My single friend sighed and said, “I wish I could be like you. I wish I could just put the hurt away and be so strong.”
I winced. And then I opened my mouth to tell the truth. I wanted to say:

“Oh, but I hurt. I hurt so bad I have to remind myself to breathe. The first thing I do after I wake up is cry every morning. Sometimes in these moments I text and beg him to talk to me. And then when he doesn’t, late at night, after a few shots of tequila, I text something bitter and angry. Then I delete the messages out of my phone because I’m embarrassed of both. I suck at this. I’m terrified it will never end. I wonder what is wrong with me – if I’m irrevocably broken.  I’m a hot mess. Don’t take any advice from me. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I’ve hit the mat and I can’t get back up!!”

Instead I serenely said, “I had three amazing months. A couple weeks of heartbreak seems like a fair trade off.”

I did a huge disservice to my friends by not being honest about how hard it was to be flat on my face on the floor. Yes, I was back on my feet, but it would have been more helpful to honest about how my legs were so wobbly that I’d be back down shortly and that the battle was still being waged. I should have told them I was fragile and human and asked for a hug. I should have given them a front row seat to the ring and let them see the struggle, help if they could, and more importantly see that it wasn’t just them. It’s all of us.

So to make amends, I’m telling you.

It sucks on the mat, my dear friends. And the ref may very well count you out. And the worst part is that you’re going to have to decide whether or not you’re in for the next fight. But just so you know, it’s not just you. It sucks on the mat. It hurts. It’s disorienting. It’s humiliating. And most people don’t just bounce right back up. If they say they did – well, they are lying.

All the same every time you hit the mat, you learn something new about yourself while you’re sprawled there. And I believe that as ugly and distasteful as the struggle to get back up is, it is truly one of the most beautiful things that humans are capable of doing.

And it DOES get easier. If you tend your wounds, grieve your loss, reflect on your weaknesses, strengths and strategy, then you are going to get to your feet faster every time. If you do this, then it is SO worth scheduling the rematch. It is SO worth being in the ring. It actually IS worth the broken heart.

LearnedtoRise

Surely You Can Get Back Down

BWI#2

 

A couple of weeks ago I found myself staring off a bluff straight down into my favorite phobia.

Dread, my red-tailed hawk came into my home late last January with beat up feathers, wild as the wind, and a nasty temperament. He saw my value pretty quickly though, and we were hunting together within a month. We have an agreement. I provided better opportunities to hunt, water when he was thirsty, a warm safe place to sleep, food when hunts went badly, and therefore he would let me tag along while I set him loose to do hawk things.

Logically, I know he has the better deal. However, I know that I get fresh air, exercise, mental challenges, and that I get to see and experience things that most people don’t even consider. Philosophically, I have a much better deal. Dread makes me a better person.  And so when we are in the field, I am completely in, no matter what. After all, I might catch a quick glimpse of something akin to magic.

Which leads to why I ended up in a precarious place with no good options on how to get down.

Dread was high up on a bluff, watching below as I tried to scare up a cottontail and potentially, his meal for the next several days. Our communication is limited to hand signals, a few agreed upon words, and a lot of trust, but we understand each other as best as two rather incongruous minds can manage. However, I know I’m not the boss of him. So when he suddenly disappeared, I realized that he had stumbled upon an agreed upon exception.

Anything involving food is an agreed up on exception.

I got out my receiver and verified via the transmitter on his tail that his was still not far from where I’d last seen him, but most likely out of sight above the rise and surely with food.

Now I had a job.

He’s in my care and therefore I needed to get to wherever he was as quickly as possible. I am his first line of defense against another more aggressive red-tailed hawk, a coyote, or anything else that might damage him and take his meal.

I didn’t even look at how steep the climb was, I just used my hands, dug in my toes and made my way up. I found him with the biggest wood rat I had ever seen. Despite my haste it was mostly eaten, but it as also fairly won. So I hopped him onto the glove with it, and let him finish, knowing our outing was over. He was too sated and pleased to continue with any more hunting.

It wasn’t the ending I wanted. I don’t enjoy killing things, but larger game is a bigger bounty and hawks need food. It would have been more ideal to have a bigger reward. It would have been more exciting to have seen the hunt. All the same, the hawk didn’t care. He was happy. I was happy for him. This was a good morning. Until looked down.

Climbing up is a lot less daunting than the realization that you somehow have to safely descend with a hawk hooded and balanced on your glove.

Let me expound on this a bit. Steep inclines take my breath away. Maybe it’s that I fell down a flight of concrete stairs when I was three years old. (No, really, I still remember it.) Or maybe it’s that I’ve watched Wesley and Princess Buttercup roll and bump down that endless hill one too many times. Whatever it is, climbing down.  No. Just no.

I shuddered and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to climb down that bluff.

Then I opened my eyes and looked at the view.

This wasn’t where I imagined my morning would take me. It wasn’t the hunt I was hoping for, but down below me there was a beautiful stretch of native California, swirled into motion by flocks of mourning doves and set against a winter blue sky. I stood above a Sunday morning world that was mostly still sleeping and probably not even dreaming of things this beautiful.

You got up here, didn’t you? Surely you can get down.

Standing with this gorgeous hawk sitting comfortably if not blissfully, on my glove, I remembered his first begrudging step to my glove, his first free flight. I recalled his first successful hunt. I remembered our many failed outings and our gradual friendship. I thought about the fear and hope and magic that is involved in befriending a wild hawk that would catch its own meal and happily return to your glove.

I thought about the journey up this hill. That journey was surely worth every slow and precarious step I was going to have to make to get us safely back down.

It was definitely worth it. It was worth the slow embarrassing slide on my butt and the thorns in my palm. It was worth it just like the autumn relationship that broke my heart. The finished novel on my desk that didn’t wrap up into the beautiful poetic package I wanted it to. It was worth it — just like life.

So when you accidentally climb up that precarious place representing your most revered fears, don’t forget to pause and remember how freaking awesome the climb was that got you there. You’ll get back down just fine.

xxR

 

IfThePath